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Wireless takes off: so you've finally established a wireless data network. Now it's time to set your sights on making your telecommunications wireless, too.

At most colleges and universities across North America, September brings fresh faces and high hopes, a new outlook for the future. At Marquette University in Milwaukee, September 2002 brought with it a whole lot more than that. In what can only be characterized as an enrollment snafu, admissions officials found themselves with approximately 1,950 incoming freshmen students--but rooms to house only 1,800 of them. Panic set in. Time was too short to build a new dorm, and the school didn't have enough surplus graduate-student housing to convert until October, without displacing some of its more senior students. Finally, after months of administrative trepidation and only two weeks before the start of school the manager of the off-campus Executive Inn hotel offered to turn over most of the facility for temporary student housing. School officials accepted on the spot, and ostensibly, the problem was solved. For Marquette telecommunications officials, however, the real drama was just about to unfold.

With 120 students preparing to descend on campus within days, school officials expected technologists to expand the campus telecommunications network to an off-campus location quickly and seamlessly, all without investing big bucks in new wires. They turned the job over to Telecommunications Manager B.J. Cook, who, in turn, turned immediately to wireless solutions provider Nextel (www.nextel.com). Cook figured the only way to meet the requests of his supervisors was to incorporate a wireless component into the school's more sedentary wired telecommunications network. What he didn't count on was that Nextel would be interested in launching a pilot program, and that the New York City-based vendor would be willing to provide a solution so comprehensive that on-campus callers dialing their friends at the Executive couldn't even tell the difference.

"I didn't want [the] displaced students to feel alienated," Cook says, noting that Nextel's solution cost his school "next to nothing," and provided students with cellular phones free of charge. "My feeling after this was completed is that the students and their parents felt they were 'special'."

Indeed, as a variety of new wireless communication applications become available across North America, technology officials at academic institutions are exploring all sorts of innovative ways to incorporate them into the telecommunications landscape. At some schools, such as Marquette, this has meant a newfound reliance on a familiar device--the cellular phone. At other schools, the trend has sparked an effort to incorporate voice and data into wireless personal digital assistants (PDAs) and other, surprising devices and objects. At still other institutions of higher education, the push has led to trials of some of the most cutting-edge wireless technologies anywhere on Earth--802.16 broadband wireless, wireless Voice over the Internet Protocol (VoIP), and new wireless communication technologies driven by radio transmitters smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.

For most schools, the question isn't whether to implement wireless telecommunications, but how to do it in a cost-effective way that allows for growth down the road. "You'd be pretty silly not to admit that there's not much need for a landline-oriented communications anymore," says Clint Wheelock, director of Wireless Research for In-Stat/MDR, a digital communications think tank based in Scottsdale, AZ. "The real issue is deciding how to implement a solution that's affordable and won't become obsolete in a matter of months."

They Can Hear You Now

Historically, campus telecommunications has, by its very nature, been linked to wires. For years, one of a student's first chores upon arrival on campus as a freshman was to head over to the Student Services department and set up his or her landline telephone. In these scenarios, universities acted as mini telephone companies, purchasing a set number of lines from a local private branch exchange (PBX), and renting the use of those lines to students, at a significantly discounted rate. Today, among those schools exploring wireless telecommunications, the system is fundamentally different. Instead of purchasing sedentary phone lines from a local carrier or PBX, schools have switched to buying phone numbers from wireless carriers, then offering faculty and students enticing discounts to activate the numbers and add a variety of optional fee-based services. The end result? The same phone service as always, only this time, without wires.

At Marquette, where the Nextel pilot program helped Cook overcome the school's undergraduate housing overflow, the situation was particularly unique. Working with Ascendent Telecommunications (www.ascendenttelecom.com.) and Norstan Communications (www.norstan.com)--the vendor behind Marquette's existing on-campus PBX--Nextel technicians visited the Executive Inn and installed Mobile Extension, a product that allowed users to receive a university dial tone, a set class of service, university voicemail, and the ability to make calls using the same five-digit capability of campus landlines. According to Chris Hackett, Nextel's vice president of Education, the solution not only enabled the displaced students to feel connected to their peers, but also helped them establish a sense of camaraderie with one another, thanks to the company's famous "Direct Connect" walkie-talkie feature.

"Originally, this solution was intended to provide stopgap communication for these kids who were otherwise technologically ostracized from the rest of the student body," he says. "But within weeks, it was clear the students had used the technology to develop communication behaviors all their own."

Other wireless vendors, faced with dwindling private subscriber groups, have gotten in on the action toward even more capitalistic ends. At Ohio State University, for instance, officials at the school's University Network Integrated Telecommunications System (UNITS) inked sponsorship deals with Cingular (www.cingular.com) and Sprint PCS (www.sprintpcs.com) to form OSU Wireless, an independent organization that offers a smorgasbord of rock-bottom-priced deals only to faculty, staff, and students at the Columbus, OH-based school. Officials at Lehigh University (PA) took a similar approach, offering students low-cost wireless telecommunications services from AT&T Wireless (www.attws.com) through a partnership called Lehigh University's Student Advantage. At Lehigh, AT&T Corporate Account Manager Debbie Phillips says that students select any one of the wireless plans AT&T Wireless offers nationwide, and the school presents them with a variety of discounts. For every new service sold, AT&T Wireless then kicks back to Lehigh a certain percentage of the profits, turning wireless into a potential moneymaker for the school.

Lehigh and AT&T Wireless officials declined to reveal how much revenue they have bagged through this new wireless offering, but admit that more than half of the school's 4,685 undergraduates now communicate without wires, rather than with them. At the State University of New York (Morrisville), where school officials replaced 2,000 traditional landline phones with wireless devices before the start of the 2003 school year, President Ray Cross is much more forthcoming about the return on the school's investment. According to Cross, the school opted for cellular phones from Nextel, and for $15 a month, students receive a phone and basic, one-line local service. On top of the $30,000 in monthly revenue for the school generated by this deal, Cross estimates that the switch also saved the school thousands of dollars in wire maintenance costs, and adds that he now outsources all support requests straight back to the vendor.

"The students were already paying for landlines as part of their dorm fees," says Cross. "For about the same price today, they get more flexibility, and we free up money in maintenance and support."

Other Innovations

Cellular phones aren't the only new application of wireless telecommunications; many schools across North America are incorporating the latest technologies via other more creative methods. At Carleton University and the University of Ottawa (both in Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ontario), James Patterson, fool-patrol director at both schools, has incorporated wireless phones and PDAs into the nightly campus escort service that runs between both schools. The devices, courtesy of Canadian wireless service provider TELUS Mobility (www.telusmobility.com), operate on short-range wireless data networks that enable the speedy dispatch of patrollers and emergency services across the two campuses. The application even netted the program a "Connected to the Community" award from the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (www.cwta.ca), and a Certificate of Excellence recently awarded by the Ontario Crime Commission--an honor usually reserved for an organization more directly involved with local police.

A similar application at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has garnered kudos of a different kind. There, economics professors Sheryl Ball and Catherine Eckel have pioneered a wireless teaching game designed to help students grasp John Nash's famous "Nash Equilibrium" and some other complicated economic theories. Students play the game on PDAs that Ball and Eckel hand out as class begins; with the help of an ordinary Cisco wireless access point, the professors turn their laptop computers into wireless servers and monitor student performance as the game progresses. The secure, wireless Virtual Private Network (see "LEAP for Joy," page 56) enables Ball and Eckel to make sure information in the game remains confidential, and allows them to push data to students whenever they like. Meanwhile, according to Scott Midkiff, who conducts research for the school through its government-funded Center for Wireless Telecommunications, the low-cost technology teaches students ways to incorporate wireless into their everyday lives.

"Most people involved with wireless today are really just providing network connectivity, and that's as far as the thinking goes," says Midkiff, who also is a professor of electrical and computer engineering. "We need to think beyond this and ask ourselves how--if we provide connectivity everywhere--we can incorporate telecommunications and other technologies to really change the way we go about doing what we do."

With the help of FL-based Mesh Networks (www.meshnetworks.com), technologists at the University of South Florida are asking themselves the very same question. In an attempt to establish a tracking system that follows the position of every bus on campus in order to give riders an idea of when the next bus will arrive, telecommunications experts on the school's Tampa campus recently installed one of Mesh's new wireless technologies in the campus transportation system. Similar systems incorporate Global Positioning System (GPS) technology and wireless access points to triangulate objects upon command. The Mesh system, however, is based on QDMA Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum radio, which operates on wide-area digital radio frequencies that carry voice, video, and data just as 802.11b wireless would.

The technology behind the Mesh approach originated with the U.S. Army, where technologists invented it to be deployed with little to no wireless communications infrastructure during battlefield situations. Devices equipped with what Mesh executives call "Intelligent Access Points" serve as routers for every other device in the network, enabling voice, video, and data to "hop" from one device to the next. Rick Rotondo, the company's VP of Technical Marketing, explains that the technology works best outdoors, where there are no buildings or obstacles to block the signal as it hops from one host to the next. As such, he notes, the technology was perfect for USF's busy public transportation system, a network of more than 12 buses that circle the school's 1,700-acre campus.

"We liken the system to a walkie-talkie for data," says Rotondo. "It's just another way to look at wireless telecommunications without necessarily spending big money on access points or a cellular tower on campus."

The Next Big Things

Surprisingly, though Mesh's QDMA technology isn't delivered over the standard 802.11b protocol many consider it to be one of the most sophisticated wireless strategies on the market today. At Princeton University (NO), electrical engineering Professor Stuart Schwartz is overseeing a strikingly similar National Science Foundation-funded project called MAMA Networks. The project--an acronym for Multiple Appliances, Multiple Antennas--represents a collaborative effort among researchers at Princeton, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Stevens Institute of Technology (NJ) to place tiny wireless receivers in electrical devices of every kind, thus enabling wireless communications by sending signals through anything. As of now, the effort is simply a trial Eventually, says Schwartz, the technology could enable individuals to use appliances in their homes as transceivers for wireless communication, forever eliminating the physical phone as we know it today.

Schwartz and his colleagues also are cooking up some other radio-oriented methods to enable wireless telecommunications down the road. In another of their projects--this one dubbed FREE BITS--the technologists envision a network of high-speed radio transmitters called Infostations, pumping data to handheld devices as quickly as 100 megabytes per second (mbps). As Schwartz outlines the concept, he notes that the system would essentially operate offline until a users device came close enough to an Infostation to download the latest information. Without the constant need for data in real time, he continues, the bits could float freely, ready for access at any moment.

"Our thesis is that mobile Internet usage will not take off until it's free everywhere," he says. "On a wired system, bits are free; but how do you get free bits in a mobile environment? Answering that question is our goal."

In the immediate future, of course, academic technologists are concerning themselves with more attainable realities--wireless delivery of VoIP, and a new Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standard designed for longer wireless links, colloquially known as 802.16 or WiMax. The first, wireless VoIP, works much like traditional VoIP, only transmits voice packets over the Internet Protocol on a wireless network. This technology generally requires more bandwidth than a wireless network is capable of providing, but still seems to be drawing considerable interest. At the University of Wyoming, for instance, programmers have been experimenting with the VoIP technology thanks to a new high-speed wireless network from CO-based Roving Planet (www.rovingptanet.com). Still, UW systems programmer Justin Borthwick estimates the technology is still probably months, if not years, away.

The second of these wireless telecommunications technologies on the horizon, WiMax, is a much bigger deal. Because current 802.11a and 802.11g wireless standards can only send signals up to 300 feet, some experts hail this new standard as the "next big thing" in wireless telecommunications, and note that the technology's ability to send wireless signals at 70 mpbs for up to 30 or 40 miles could henceforth revolutionize the way schools design their wireless networks. Others decry the idea as pandering, and skeptically point out that no technology can provide that kind of coverage and speed without sacrificing service or data integrity. One application of 802.16 acts as an alternative to broadband Internet access over landlines. Still, as In-Stat/MDR expert Wheelock notes, the technology is still far from here. "Broadband wireless in the academic environment is the Holy Grail," he says, "but we're still a good bit away from seeing the kind of scale that would make a difference."

RELATED ARTICLE: The mCampus.

Some schools are taking a truly "inclusive" approach to wireless telecom, using if to create a backbone that enables a single mobile connection for everyone in the university community.

At Wake Forest University (NC), an effort in conjunction with IBM Global Services (www.ibm.com/services) has prompted the school to converge its communications networks and provide high-quality cellular service to students with a range of carriers. School officials call this approach the "mCampus," and say that a prevalent wireless environment enables students and faculty to use any number of devices to access the network--cell phones, PDAs, tablet PCs, laptop computers, and more.

Using new technology from IBM Global Services, the program also incorporates ordinary cellular telecommunications into the data network itself, allowing users with wireless mobile devices to seamlessly access the university portal that includes the university directory, calendar, and other essential student services, too. Once they have logged onto this portal, students can perform any number of self-service tasks, including registering for classes, signing up for extracurricular lectures, managing financial accounts, and more. The technology also incorporates Wake Forest-branded instant messaging, enabling users to send text messages back and forth between a variety of wireless devices, everywhere on campus.

"We believe that a new era of mobility is upon us," says Jay Dominick, the school's CIO and assistant VP for Information. "[We are reducing] network costs while identifying new ways to serve both our campus and local communities with cellular and portal services."

Similar programs are in the works at Ball State University (IN), where campus technologists have set up an almost identical mCampus network. Because the school boasts strong programs in video and film, technologists opted to pack even more punch into their mCampus, and called upon MA-based vendor Bluesocket (www.bluesocket.com) to improve network security and enable broadband-type performance, all without wires. With the Bluesocket technology, user authentication and data encryption occur behind the scenes, and all students have to do to get onto the network is sign in when they set up their wireless cards for the first time. Apparently, membership has its privileges: Once students have logged on, all they need to access video rendering, video editing, and other multimedia programs is that same card.

According to Dr. H. O'Neal Smitherman, the school's IT VP and CIO, the Bluesocket network supports the 802.11 protocol, and allows for students and faculty members to utilize PDAs and ordinary cellular phones as well. Smitherman notes that the network soon will boast wireless access to the university's digital storage farm, a storage system from Network Storage Solutions, Inc. (www.nssolutions.com), in which students and faculty members can store several gigabytes of information apiece. He adds that down the road, the Bluesocket network also will connect to a wireless network designed to service the entire Muncie, IN community and provide up to 30 mbps of bandwidth to everyone who logs on.

"What we're promoting is computing and telecommunications that is personal, mobile, and always connected," says Smitherman. "Our goal is to perfect this technology for our academic community first, then promote the institution as a provider of broadband and wireless digital content to the community as a whole."--MV

RELATED ARTICLE: LEAP for Joy.

As wireless technology evolves, so too does the ability to protect it.

Security always has been a weakness for wireless telecommunications. Even on sophisticated networks--those with Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) and 128- or 256-bit encryption--technologists have been concerned about data interception from the beginning. By its very nature, the wireless protocol essentially prevents network administrators from seeing who is on their network, when the individual is on it, and how he has logged on. That is, until now.

With the release earlier this year of the Light Extensible Authentication Protocol from Cisco (www.cisco.com), wireless security is no longer an oxymoron. The protocol enables users to split 802.11b wireless Local Area Networks (LANs) into up to seven multiple Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), giving network administrators the opportunity to build in strict security protocols for up to seven different users groups at a time. Once administrators have divided users into different categories, the system requires mutual authentication, meaning both the user and the access point must be authenticated before access to the LAN is allowed. The system also provides for dynamic per-user, persession WEP keys everytime the user authenticates to use the wireless network.

On college campuses, this means wireless network administrators can utilize the technology to establish separate VPNs for faculty, students, staff, and guests, giving them a much better opportunity to monitor who is on the network at any given time. "This technology is incredible," says Scott Cone, director of technology at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Colorado. "In the academic environment, I'm not sure you can use wireless and be much safer."

And if anyone knows about this technology, it's Cone; he just oversaw an implementation of the new LEAP technology by CO-based Aardvark IT Solutions (www.thevark.com). For approximately $20,000, Aardvark installed the new technology--a Cisco Radius wireless server, and more than 30 Cisco AirNet1200 access points--on a brand-new campus in suburban Denver. So far, the results have been spectacular, and Cone can monitor users as closely as he had on the school's wired network, even tracking the network movements of visitors to campus who are only given access for the duration of their stay.

One note: In August, Joshua Wright, a systems engineer at Johnson & Wales University (RI) demonstrated that the LEAP system was vulnerable to dictionary attacks. Cisco has encouraged clients to install the Protected Extensible Authentication Protocol (PEAP), which relies on digital certificates to control network access.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer based in Seattle and Moss Beach, CA.
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Title Annotation:Telecommunications
Author:Villano, Matt
Publication:University Business
Date:May 1, 2004
Words:3424
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